“Everyone is good, until we’re tested.”
So begins Maureen Dowd’s Op-Ed column from Sunday, June 17, entitled “Moral Dystopia.” This column is not for the faint of heart, I might add, as it excerpts some of the most disturbing testimony regarding the boys, now young men, who were sexually abused by Jerry Sandusky when he served as defensive coordinator for Penn State’s football program.
Dowd opens her piece with the comparison of Sir Thomas More in a “Man for All Seasons” (the paragon of moral principle) and Mike McQueary, who at one time had played as quarterback for Penn State and later served as a graduate assistant coach, the same man who witnessed Sandusky raping a young boy and did essentially nothing. It was already the next day when McQuery walked into head coach Joe Paterno’s office, describing that Sandusky had “fondled” a young boy but omitting the more graphic details that would later emerge in his Grand Jury testimony.
McQuery, Dowd would like to point out, failed his moral test. In an effort to defend his too-little, too-late response, McQuery explained, “I’ve never been involved in anything remotely close to this. You’re not sure what the heck to do, frankly.”
There were others who turned a blind eye to Sandusky’s actions: a police officer, Sandusky’s own wife, other administrative officials at Penn State. And in the midst of their moral paralysis, boys were raped and abused and victimized.
This sends shivers up the mother spine.
Dowd asks provocative questions, and what she essentially wonders is this: how have we so dulled our sense of right and wrong?
There are those who would try and answer that question. David Brooks wrote a fascinating column this month entitled, “The Moral Diet.” He features the latest research from Dan Ariely, social scientist at Duke University, who argues that most of us aren’t complete reprobates: rather, the majority of us are driven by a sense of moral right and wrong. For example, in Ariely’s research, when cab drivers were asked to drive sighted passengers versus blind passengers, it was observed that the cabbies were much more likely to cheat the sighted people, although it would have been arguably easier to cheat those who were blind. To cheat a blind person would have violated the cabbies’ sense of fairness.
However, cheating sighted people was all in a day’s work. They did that without batting a moral eye.
And that’s where Ariely lands. We make moral choices in order to maintain our sense of being good.. As long as our moral choices outweigh our immoral ones, we continue in our self-constructed fantasy world of being “good enough.”
I’d argue that as long as society works only to be “good enough,” which is conveniently defined by our own personalized standards of right and wrong, we’re destined to be the “ethical free agents” Dowd envisions.
We’re the next Mike McQuery, having the inadequate moral sensibility to notice when something is tragically WRONG and doing absolutely NOTHING to stop it.
Which is why I’m thrilled to be a Christian and to have the most compelling language available to describe what it means to be human and why it is we make the choices we do.
The truth is: We are wrecked. Our moral hardwiring is in a state of disaster because of what we call sin. And while to the behavioural scientists and secular journalists and lab scientists, the notion of sin feels like an outdated play out of the Victorian playbook, it’s language that is neither irrelevant nor outmoded. Ariely may soon be a Christian himself, so long as he continues noticing the patterns that people cheat, lie, steal as much as they like so long as they don’t offend their own identity as being good.
David Brooks says it better than I could: “Obviously . . . there’s a measurement problem. You can buy a weight scale to get an objective measure of your diet. But you can’t buy a scale of virtues to put on the bathroom floor. And given our awesome capacities for rationalization and self-deception, most of us are going to measure ourselves leniently.”
We do tend toward policies of lenience towards ourselves: we simply aren’t that bad, at least not as bad as the next person.
The Bible offers us language that is far more true and telling: we are sinners, failing the most exacting Biblical standards of right and wrong. It’s not simply that we do bad. It’s that we fail to do good. And even the good we do is tainted with complicated motivations. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, our goodness is about as pristine as bloody menstrual pads.
So that’s it? We’re bad, bad, bad?
No, there’s rescuing grace. Forgiveness for the wrong we do, the wrong we plot, the good we fail to do. Jesus’ death on the cross means atonement for our failed moral record.
And that’s not all. There’s a moral renovation project underway. The good we want to do, the moral evil we want to forsake: it’s possible by spiritual rebirth.
Antiquated language? Sinners being born again?
Is the world to really buy this revivalist stuff?
Absolutely. Because try-hard religion and self-imposed moral arbitration doesn’t prepare us for our Mike McQuery moments.
We need the Jesus who raged against the cheating in the temple courts, overturning the tables of the money changers. We need the Jesus who condemned religious hypocrites, calling them “whitewashed tombs.” We need the Jesus project of setting the world to rights, calling evil spades spades and establishing a new kingdom where justice, fairness, goodness reign supreme.
We need the Jesus who, on the cross, bore the weight of God’s fierce moral judgment against sin – our sin.
We need the Jesus who promised to send His helper to indwell the Church, giving us new moral eyes, ears, hearts, hands.
We need Jesus to reset our moral bearings and renew our moral courage.
Our world needs this Jesus.
And they need the Church.